The European Court made an important decision yesterday about genetic engineering, the technique that intervenes in DNA structures to change properties of plants, animals or people. The decision concerned mutagenesis, a watered down version of the real heavy stuff, which is the subject of a 17-year-old law that makes experimenting with DNA very difficult. And that law in itself resulted from 8 years of negotiations. That means the starting points are 25 years old. The European Court applies the precautionary principle, which could be translated as: “I don’t know enough about it, so let’s not do it.”
Genetic modification, a topic you’d better not burn your hands on as a columnist. Because how do you summarise millions of years of agricultural development and decades of complex scientific research in a few hundred words.
But we can’t let this ruling go by unnoticed, because what has happened in Brussels in the last few days concerning the genetic engineering legislation is too important to ignore.
Simply put: the camps are divided.
On the one hand, there are the people who adhere to the traditional agriculture, who feel that plant DNA shouldn’t be tampered with, that warn of the danger of mutated plants, who believe that agriculture should step back to its origin.
On the other hand there are the scientists who know that research can lead to improvement of plant species. That it is possible to develop crops that deliver more vegetables, require less water, don’t need pesticides, and contain more vitamins or other nutrients.
Then there’s the entrepreneurs. They, in turn, can be divided into innovative companies that come up with ways to develop healthy organic vegetables from soil depleted by pesticides and fertilisers and larger companies that use the gene modification only for profit and are not very interested in the social and health implications.
And then, finally, there’s also the politicians in Brussels. They are apparently too busy – I don’t know with what – to review old laws in a time where there are new developments every month. And the European judges that stop the mutagenesis then, because it is not their task to rewrite the law.
If the supermarket shelves now contained the same vegetables as two hundred years ago, the kind of primal vegetables you sometimes find these days in hardcore organic stores, it would decimate the turnover. Because what we have achieved over the past 100 years in the modification of vegetables is unprecedented. The beautiful glossy bell peppers in three colors, the mini cucumbers, the purple broccoli or the pink cauliflowers are at most decades old.
Nature itself is much more whimsical than whatever we could think up in a laboratory, only takes much longer to achieve it. And we are in a rush, with our almost depleted earth, with more and more mouths to feed. The worst part is that large multinationals laugh at the rule of law. Worldwide, they have already accomplished so much with their genetic developments that no European Court can stop them anymore.
A breakthrough is needed. In which the camps are trying to find a middle ground. It is too easy to immediately dismiss genetically modified plants as Frankenstein-food. To only glorify traditional organic farming when there is still too little space and manpower to feed the world’s population (795 million people lack sufficient, healthy food on a daily basis).
Scientists who are unhappy with the ruling should be lobbying in Brussels for new legislation or, if necessary, write it for the politicians and judges who are just sitting out their time. And major multinationals should develop a conscience instead of avoiding the debate by just doing as they please elsewhere without accountability to society.
This post is also available in: Dutch